Getting What You Want Out of Your Mentoring Relationship

Guest: Karen Catlin, Advocate for Women in Tech

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I’m back this week with another new Build episode on the theme of mentoring!

Have you already tried mentoring and found that it’s not working for you? Is it because you’re just not getting what you want out of it, or other people have convinced you it’s just not worth your time?

We get that something may go wrong, which is why in today’s episode, we’re going to cover all the things that can go wrong with mentoring. But we won’t leave you hanging—Karen Catlin and I will provide concrete tips (including some exact scripts to use) for:

  • why you might consider finding a mentor inside vs. outside your current company;
  • how you can go about setting clear expectations with your mentor;
  • how mentoring and coaching are different;
  • how to decide if it makes sense to pay for coaching; and
  • why it’s important to thank your mentor and how to do it effectively.

And next week, we’ll conclude our theme of mentoring by sharing how you can get started as a mentor!

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Why You Might Not Be Getting What You Want Out of Your Mentoring Relationship Transcript

Poornima Vijayashanker: In the last segment, we talked about the importance of mentorship and why some people may be reluctant to seeking out a mentor. If you’ve missed the segment, I’ve included a link to it below this video, so don’t miss it and be sure to check it out. In today’s segment, we’re going to focus the conversation around how you can get the most out of mentoring. Welcome back to Build, brought to you by Pivotal Tracker. I’m your host, Poornima Vijayashanker. Each Build episode consists of a series of conversations I have with innovators in tech, and together we debunk a number of myths around building products, companies, and your career in technology, because I know there’s a lot of people out there who may not be aware that they are doing things that are actively acting against them from having a good mentoring relationship.

Karen Catlin: Sure.

What not to talk about during mentoring

Poornima Vijayashanker: Let’s start by talking about what you should not expect to get out of that relationship.

Karen Catlin: In a word, gossip. I used to have a mentee who would come to my office for our monthly meetings, and would sit down and just say, “So, tell me what you’re hearing about. What’s going around the company?” Oh my gosh, like I wasn’t just going to share all of the, you know, news I had heard to this person, you know?

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right.

Karen Catlin: He was just looking for gossip and it basically turned into this mentoring relationship that I hated. I really did not look forward to those meetings because like he was probing me for intelligence. It wasn’t cool.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, yeah. It wasn’t the purpose of the meeting.

When mentoring goes wrong

Karen Catlin: No. Can I tell you something else I’ve hated about mentoring? I had another mentee who we were working together, I think, for over a six-month period, once a month we had a meeting, and when we got together each time I would say to her, “So last time, you know, we talked about this. Did my advice help you?” Her response was various forms of, “Oh, you know, I’ve been too busy” or, “I didn’t really think it was going to work so I didn’t even try it out,” but she was there to get more advice from me. Like, what was that all about, right? I was not fulfilled. I did not think my advice was helping her, and again, I hated those relationships.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, so it didn’t sound like it was something that would keep you engaged as the person who was doing the mentoring.

Karen Catlin: No, exactly.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Anything else that people want to be doing?

Karen Catlin: I’m so glad you asked.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Karen Catlin: The other pet peeve I have around this—and I bet most people in our audience here would be incredibly respectful of anyone’s time that they were asking for mentorship—but I definitely have had people that have overstepped the bounds of that. You know, a meeting has been scheduled maybe for an hour and I can’t get them to leave the office. It’s like the hour is up and they keep talking, and they want me to keep providing advice. I’m just trying to get them out the door because I’ve got other things to do, so we really need to be respectful of the time and our time commitments there.

How to set expectations for your mentoring relationship

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK, so now that we’ve talked about a number of things not to do, let’s switch gears and talk about how to set expectations.

Karen Catlin: Sure. A mentee should really be looking to the mentor for advice, but really in the context of, “Have you ever experienced this situation before?” Or, “Tell me about a time you might have had to do something like this.” For example, let’s say that you wanted to approach a mentor because you had to learn about a certain market vertical, right? The worst question is to go to that mentor and say, “Tell me everything I need to know about this market vertical.” It puts so much burden on the mentor to be like this educator in everything.

Poornima Vijayashanker: We don’t know where to start.

Karen Catlin: Any way, and we don’t even know where to start. It’s too big a question. Much better would be to approach the mentor and say, “Hey, I need to come up to speed on this market vertical. Can you tell me how you came up to speed and learned everything you know?”

Poornima Vijayashanker: Nice.

Karen Catlin: Something like that. They then can share their experiences and start talking about how they have come up to speed on the market.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. It’s a lot more relatable and they have those experiences. They’re not kind of fishing for things that may or may not be applicable. It’s kind of your job as the mentee to figure out which piece of their experience relates back to you. Any other examples that you have?

Karen Catlin: Sure. I remember mentoring someone who came to me because she wanted to explore a lateral job move and she actually asked a really good question. She didn’t come saying, “Hey, I have this opportunity to do this lateral job move. Do you think I should do it?” No. She didn’t say that. Instead she said, “Hey, I’m thinking about this lateral job move. Have you ever taken a lateral job move and how did you make the decision to do it?” Then we were able to have a great conversation about it.

When does it make sense to pay for coaching?

Poornima Vijayashanker: It’s natural to start and have maybe a coffee conversation. There are a lot of mentors, though, who are also coaches that expect to be paid, so how do you know when it’s time to hire somebody?

Karen Catlin: Mentors and coaches are similar and yet different as well. A mentor’s job is to provide their experience, share their advice, those types of things. A coach probably has more of a discipline around helping a client in a certain way, whether that is a job transition that they’re exploring and trying to put frameworks around that, or strengthening leadership skills, which is what I focus on, and every coach is different. I think a very simple way to think about this is, a coach will be—it’s a business, and so there is a charge for that, and a mentor is a free thing.

One thing I’ll say though is every coach has a different style depending on their experiences and their approaches to things, and I am a blend. Chances are I’ve walked a mile in my client’s shoes because I’ve had such a long history in tech already and all my clients are in tech, so I do provide some mentoring in terms of my coachees might ask me something, my clients will ask me something, and if I have relevant experience, I’ll share that story because I think it might help them, but then I’ll also be putting more of a framework around helping them achieve their goals overtime and that’s why it will end up…you know, there’s a payment involved, there’s a cost involved.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. You’re trying to get somebody to a milestone.

Karen Catlin: Exactly.

Poornima Vijayashanker: You’re trying to help them improve, and because there’s a lot of structure around it, you then want to get paid for that versus like just general kind of coffee conversations.

Karen Catlin: Right. Exactly, exactly.

Poornima Vijayashanker: For people who are evaluating when it makes sense to hire somebody, how would you recommend that they think about it?

Karen Catlin: Yes. I would recommend it in terms of, first of all, if you don’t have a good mentoring situation or mentoring program at your company or in a community of some sort, then that’s a time to explore coaching. I would also say that if you have a situation where you’re trying to grow some skills and you’re very much, “Here are my goals and here’s what I want to get to,” and you feel that it would be something you want to do not out in public, like you don’t want anyone at your company to know you’re working on these skills, again, you want to do it on your own and sort of on the side, you might want to hire a coach. It also might be that you want some professional help in terms of, yeah, you respect a lot of people that you work with, but are they the right people to help you get to this point that you’re trying to get to in your career? It might be time to get an external perspective and some professional help.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. I’ve also found that just having the accountability of meeting with somebody weekly, thinking of it as an investment, is really helpful.

Karen Catlin: Yes.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Versus like, “Oh, can we grab coffee 30 minutes here, 30 minutes there?” A lot of times it’s valuable, but you miss some of the context, and like you said, some of the framework that people you’re paying for have done this over and over again.

How mentoring differs from coaching

Karen Catlin: Yeah. Here’s an analogy. Let’s say you think about your workouts, just to keep yourself healthy and so forth. You may have a workout buddy or a friend. You’re going to go work out, go climbing, go for a walk, whatever. That’s great, but if you really are serious about changing things up, you might hire a trainer at your gym to really get things moving in the right direction and get some professional help. That’s similar to how you might approach coaching and mentoring. A mentor would be someone like, “Let’s go for that walk together. Let’s go climbing together.” We’re going to talk as we go, but it’s going to be a little more casual. Then if you really want to get serious, you’re going to hire the equivalent of the trainer at the gym. You’re going to hire a coach for your career.

How to thank your mentor

Poornima Vijayashanker: Last question for you in this segment. How about thanking your mentors, expressing your gratitude so that they know that their time was well spent, and they keep kind of looking out for you and want to work with you?

Karen Catlin: Yeah. Mentors, even if it looks like we are professional and successful, we still enjoy being treated to a cup of coffee or a lunch. You know, it’s a nice touch, and of course flowers, wine, gadgets, Teslas. I don’t know. Just have some fun there.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. It’d be a toy Tesla.

Karen Catlin: A toy Tesla. There you go, but seriously, gifts are always nice, but I’ll tell you the most meaningful thank yous I’ve gotten from my mentees have been when they have come and thanked me and told me, “This is how your advice has helped me.” I remember I mentored someone when I was back at Adobe just over lunch one day. It was just a one-time, casual mentoring kind of thing. A year later, she reached out to me and said, “Hey, Karen. I want to thank you for that lunch we had a year ago. You told me these things and this is what I did, and I just got the promotion I was trying to go for.” I remember I went to lunch, but I didn’t remember everything I told her. I shared some advice, shared some stories, whatever.

For her to come back and say, “This helped me” was so important to me because that meant that I spent my time well, she really was paying attention and in sort of a circle kind of thing, it also helps me become a better mentor because now I know, “Oh, that story or that advice really resonated for her. I’ll remember to use that again if someone is in a similar situation.” So thank somebody by really telling them, “This is what you’ve shared with me. This is what you told me. This is what I did. Here’s how it helped.” That’s the best thank you any mentor could ask for.

Poornima Vijayashanker: No, that sounds great. Well, thank you for sharing that with all of us.

Karen Catlin: Sure. My pleasure.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Karen and I want to know, are there expectations that you’re looking to set with your potential mentor and you’re wondering how to frame them? Let us know what they are in the comments below and we’ll be sure to respond to them shortly. That’s it for this segment. Subscribe to our YouTube channel to receive the next and final segment on mentoring where Karen and I will be talking about how you can become an effective mentor. Ciao for now.

This episode of Build is brought to you by our sponsor, Pivotal Tracker.


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